Saturday, October 29, 2016

Medical Adventures in Japan

My first Japanese medical experience occurred after only a week in the country. My shoulder hurt and I could not lift my arm. I googled up for a few seconds (should be equivalent to four years of medical school right?) and self diagnosed having a super awesome, top athlete injury called a "ripped rotator cuff."

Obvious diagnosis for studmuffin unable to raise his arm
So I went in to the doctor, who spoke no English, and was informed, somehow, with the assistance of a useful cartoon pamphlet: "You only wish you were on the starting rotation of the Hanshin Tigers Baseball team. In fact you are an old bureaucrat. You don't have a ripped rotator cuff, you have 50 year old shoulder disease. Suck it up." At least that is what I think he said. Having disclosed my condition to my geriatrician sister-in-law she exclaimed "what? you have frozen shoulder?" and taunted me mercilessly, raising her arms above her head with a gleeful giggle, saying 'look! I can do this". This taunt is etched deeply in my memory, and will stay with me longer than this frozen shoulder (I think).

Now, let me get back to the purpose of this post: medical event number two. I got an ear infection. I get these a lot due to my 'narrow ear canal' - though I only started getting them in my thirties (why so late in life?). Anyway, all the standard symptoms. Plugged ear. Pain when pulling on lobe. Itchy. I have self diagnosed this many times and keep a half bottle of ciloxin drops that expired 3 years ago handy specifically to wipe these bothersome infections out without bothering to go the doctor for a new prescription. I have a slight fear I may be breeding some ciloxan resistant bugs in my ear... I tried my usual treatment and felt no immediate improvement. Uh oh. Either I have finally succeeded in culturing super bugs in my ear, or this medicine with an expiry date in 2012 and an instruction to "discard one month after opening" has indeed expired. OK, time for another visit to a Japanese doctor. I'll tell him the symptoms, perhaps let slip the obvious diagnosis, and he'll prescribe some new pills and drops. I hope the fool does not diagnose me with 50 year old ear disease.

So I went to the doctor. After a bit of tweaking and hemming and hawing he pulls out what I thought might be some kind of device to look into my ear, but turns out to have been the INSTRUMENT OF DEATH.

Let me digress. I was on a ship in the Antarctic for three months in 1986 and my cabin-mate developed a wart. He thought, well, we have a free doctor on board, why don't I just make use of this service and get this wart removed. Could be a nice co-benefit from spending two months on a ship, in the dark, in the Antarctic winter. The doctor had very little to do cooped up on our boat (recall: In the dark. In the Antarctic winter), and was thus, perhaps uncharacteristically (though I am not sure), excited about this wart. He applied caustic acid and pulled out a sort of medieval torture device that looks like a grapefruit spoon and started scraping my cabin-mate's wart (though left nameless, this cabin-mate is a famous scientist from Lamont Doherty / Columbia University). The doctor prescribed coming back every day for new acid applications and scrapings. He said "Ve must clean it up. it must be clean" in a heavy German accent. After a few days my cabin mate started to get pained and annoyed. He did his best to go anywhere on the small ship the doctor wasn't to avoid his scraping sessions. Germans like to purge impurities. Zis is a vell known fact.

Grapefruit Spoon (note serrated edge)

Anyway, to get back to my own story, at first I was blissfully unaware that the thing being placed in my ear was the Japanese aural equivalent of a German wart removing grapefruit spoon. I assumed he was just confirming my very precisely self-diagnosed inner ear infection, which I had taken the liberty of already informed him, in case he was one of these intellectually challenged doctors who don't read up regularly on wikipedia, is "Naiji Kansen" in Japanese.

Suddenly a rather loud sucking sound started emanating from the device and he placed a large pea of goop in the wad of Kleenex the nurse (huh? where did she materialise from?) was holding. At first this was not too bad, but after a few wad removals, i noticed these wads were not earwax at all. They were in fact giant gobs of blood. And the pain was intense. I'm usually pretty taciturn, but I started moaning. I mean, my since my Japanese is pretty rudimentary (as was his English), in order to avoid the possibility that maybe he did not know this procedure was burning a hole in my head, I should gently let him know about my pain so he could take corrective action. I moaned some more.

This photo from the web is clearly faked - there is no way this woman could possibly be smiling and gazing blandly off into space during this procedure:

Woman pretending to undergo ear-vacuuming treatment

This photo, also downloaded from the internet, shows the do it yourself product, and seems much more plausible:

Woman using a do-it-yourself ear vacuum
Escaping from this guy sitting in a chair in his office was going to be an even more difficult task than my friend had avoiding the wart-nazi on the Antarctic research ship. No wonder they were allies in World War II. The Japanese must be just as rabidly purist as the Germans! This guy was applying a bloody (literally) rototiller to my eardrum. Aaaaargh. I moaned some more just in case he had not applied google translate to my previous communication efforts. The nurse wiped another gallon of wax/blood on her tissue.

"Can you hear now?" he asked. I pondered a snarky remark about how if I was answering this question, irrespective of what I may be saying, I must be hearing him, since how else could I answer his question? but decided it would be a bit tough to formulate the irony of this statement in Japanese. Particularly given that this admittedly well meaning fellow had clearly not understood my universally clear, limbic moaning noises to indicate I would prefer he stop what he was doing. So I opted instead for a simple "hai" (yes).

"Don't touch it for a while. I have caused some bleeding. There is no infection. Just lots of wax. You are healed."

Well, other than my tinnitus (which unfortunately persists), I must admit that the kamikazi-nazi treatment appears to have worked. And, believe it or not, I walked away from this entire event with a bill of only 38 dollars. You can't leave your car for an hour in the remote parking lot of a US hospital for this price, let alone pay the astronomical bill that is sent 6 months later with some deeply incomprehensible notes about why it is not covered by your insurance. I wonder, in the US, do they employ vacuum sucking grapefruit spoon like treatments for ear infections?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Arrogantly shabby or Dilapidatedly picturesque?

Ugh. My flight to Hong Kong is delayed until 2:30 am and I am stuck in an overly air conditioned, shabby, yet somehow also still managing snooty, airport lounge in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  The perfect atmosphere (arrogantly shabby?) to fire up a bit of enthusiasm for writing a blog post.

I spent a few days here this week attending the Asia Pacific Adaptation Forum. Apparently the Brits called this island the pearl of the Indian Ocean, and I guess there are parts of the country that may still evoke such encomium. But frankly Colombo is, like almost all cities in the developing world, a dump. Striving for GDP growth at all costs third world cities reek of the ugly by-products of "progress." At least this is true outside their rich denizen's compound walls.

This said, there are certainly some dilapidated picturesque sites here and there. The Wellawatta railway station, right on the beach, just across the road from my hotel, is a good example. The nearby post office of the same pleasantly doubly double consonant and alliterated name is too.

Bored Railroad Clerk and Customer
Dilapidated yet Picturesque Wellawatta Station

Sri Lanka Letter Box
Welcome to the Wellawatta Post office
I really liked the railway station. The tracks and wall paint appear to date to the British heyday, as does the bored yet gainfully employed railway clerk. But don't be deceived by the general look of decay, there has been progress and change. The station has free wifi. And, even more importantly, they separate their trash into three colors of bin (though there appears to be trash everywhere, as a sort of ambient accoutrement, so it is a bit unclear to me if anyone is actually using these bins).

Modernization: Free WIFI and sorted trash
So upgrades and improvements are clearly possible, but what does not appear to happen in wellawatta - I don't really know for Sri Lanka actually, but it is certainly true in some other countries I have lived in such as Kenya and the USA - is a sense of pride in exactness or beauty in public works, and maintenance of them.

Japan is precisely the opposite. As far as I can make out they lavish funding on quotidian public works, and clean and maintain them intensely.  See for example my recent blog post on public lavatories in the Osaka subway stations.  Or how about these incredibly beautiful manhole covers, decorated with egret and stork motifs. This is not an art exhibition, these are sewers!

Japanese Manhole Cover
Another Japanese Manhole Cover
As a contrepose here is a manhole located in the road just next to the wattawalla train station in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lankan Manhole Cover
Will it fix itself some day? Or is the stick with red cloth tied to it considered job completed?

Maybe the key to sustainable development is not the cliche solutions development gurus are always rabbiting on about (money, mainstreaming, technology transfer, knowledge platforms). Maybe it is instilling a culture of appreciation of beauty, precision and maintenance.

I'm doomed to miss my connection in Hong Kong and spend another 8 hours in another airport lounge there waiting for my connection to Osaka. Hong Kong Airport is, like so many others in Asia these days, glitzy and comfortable so that will be comforting. Yet, somehow, simply too boring to spur me to write a blog post.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Japanese origins of Pokemon

I'd estimate there is about ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear in place around this little carp and lily pond on my daily jogging route. Half a dozen middle aged men stand there for hours waiting to take "action" photos. Photos of what I am not sure. Dragonflies being eaten by carp? Or hovering over certain lily pads? At their senior pay grade this surely accounts for several more thousand dollars worth of 'effort'. The resulting output must be the most expensive photos of carp and lilies in existence.

Japanese men playing with expensive equipment while wearing baseball hats
My own attempt at an "artistic" photo of carp and lilies
This blog post is about how Japanese culture naturally led to the invention of Pokemon cards, and more recently Pokemon-Go. Japanese people love going out and capturing things. Sometimes it's photos, as above. Sometimes plants or small critters. And they love little pets. Pretty much sets the stage for the evolution of Pokemon-go, no?

The same jogging route that passes the carp pond also boasts an allĂ©e of ginko trees. About one out of 10 of them is female, and October is the fruiting month here. Ginko fruits smell unbelievably bad, but they hide a delicious nut inside. Below a father-son team collecting these. Imagine enduring a stench wave attack from a plant-type pokemon. Once, back when we were living in Toronto, Min and I decided to try to cook some of these nuts and we went to collect them from a stately old tree in front of the University Bookstore on St. George Street, about a block from our apartment. We only managed to collect a few before a crotchety old Chinese man hobbled over to shoo us away, informing us in angry Cantonese that this was his ginko nut collecting territory. 

Ginko Nuts
Could those be Ginko nuts on Gloom's head?
Little pets are also big in Japan. I'm not 100% sure but it looks to me a bit like this fashionably attired woman has chosen her outfit in order to match the very distinctive and attractive colors and patterning on her Meowth, which she is parading proudly in a public park on a leash.  No walk in the park in Japan is ever complete without an eclectic menagerie of pocket sized pets being pampered.

Finally, for capturing all those flying-types, family day in the park clearly requires multiple butterfly nets. After all, imagine the conundrum if one member is the family is busily tracking down a Butterfree, and a Venomoth suddenly appears nearby. Clearly it's best to have two nets on hand just in case.
Backup Butterfly Net?
One of the great things about Japan is that these traditional treasure hunt like activities are still going strong, and have not been displaced entirely by Pokemon-go, though the balance of evidence suggests the electronic version is more popular for the time being. The other day Min and I were standing, completely alone, on a drizzly dockside when Pikachu appeared. I was just trying to nab him, when, I kid you not, literally 1000 people stampeded me, all with their phones out trying to capture the icon.

Pikachu Seeking Hordes